Most musicians specialize in one genre. Pittsburgh musician Dave Bernabo isn't one of those self-limiting types.
Instead, Mr. Bernabo bounces between erudite rock, experimental sound, and jazz guitar, playing a number of different roles in two disparate incarnations of his latest musical project, Host Skull. Previously, Mr. Bernabo was a member of long-running indie-rockers Vale & Year, and still leads the Zappa-influenced art-pop band Assembly, but Host Skull is his collaboration with former local resident Will Dyer, who moved to New Mexico.
"It's myself and Will writing and producing all the songs," he explains. "We pulled in people from both Pittsburgh and Santa Fe. What we'll release in the summer is a full-length [album] under the name Host Skull. The band is modular -- because Will lives in Santa Fe we can have two bands, but there will be live performances. It'll be different from Assembly -- we'll reimagine the pieces from the record in a scaled-down lineup."
That's where Mr. Bernabo's interest in modern composition and theoretical practice takes flight. "I want to incorporate different performance techniques. [For example], we'd play a song, and later on in the set we'd show a video of the same song being played. And then maybe at another point, there'll be a segment from that same song with a different arrangement, or maybe the chairs would be in another position so you'd hear it from another angle. I'm still working out the concepts."
In the meantime, the first version of Host Skull Pittsburghers will hear is a 12-minute electro-acoustic magnum opus called "Fourth River," to be premiered this Friday during an art opening at Carnegie Mellon University's Frame Gallery. During the course of the work, the mood veers from gentle post-rock guitar work (reminiscent of a mellower Tortoise) to spectral ensemble scrapings (a la composer Giacinto Scelsi) to a flat-out electronic noise barrage (like some works at Paris research center INA-GRM). Most of the track is fairly subdued, however, with contributions ranging from the modular synth work of Soy Sos (a.k.a. Herman Pearl) and vibes/percussion by Jeff Berman to the chamber trio of saxophonist Brandon Masterman, flutist Kerrith Livengood and violinist Ben Harris.
Live at the Frame, the "Fourth River" performance (celebrating a digital release on Chicago label Contraphonic Records) will consist of the duo of Mr. Bernabo and Mr. Berman plus laptop, since Pearl has his own art opening Downtown that same night. "A lot of the electronics will be taken from Herman's original works," Mr. Bernabo assures, "and we'll be doing at least two 20-minute sets, extending the piece and restructuring it live while adding various improvisations."
The improvised music scene was what first brought Mr. Bernabo to the Chicago scene in which Contraphonic's label co-owner Ben Schulman is immersed. Before encountering Schulman, Mr. Bernabo had traveled to Windy City avant spaces like Elastic and Heaven Gallery, and in return brought some Chicago improvisors to Pittsburgh for small concerts. Mr. Bernabo respected Contraphonic because the label combined arty pop groups with jazz projects, such as Pronto (keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco) or bands like Lesser Birds of Paradise and Pillars & Tongues.
"[Contraphonic] had started a side label, Antiphonic, geared more towards songwriters -- the first release they did was by Dina Maccabee, who played on Sufjan Stevens' records," he recalls. "So I e-mailed them and said I was working on a 7-inch -- would they be interested in hearing the tracks? They said yes, and we created a whole album around it."
"Totally Fatalist" will be the debut Host Skull record to emerge late this summer on Antiphonic, featuring instrumental efforts by Berman and scene luminaries Liz Adams from Lohio and Josh Verbanets from Meeting of Important People. But the "Fourth River" piece may be the first of series of Fourth River works that Contraphonic will endorse.
"In Chicago, they did a 'Little Hell' series -- [percussionist] Frank Rosaly did a piece for that," he explains. "Little Hell is a neighborhood, and they had five editions [of music] documenting aspects of that neighborhood. So when the label proposed we do a Pittsburgh version, 'Fourth River' was the first idea. The concept of the Fourth River [a subterranean aquifer that runs beneath the city] is central to arts groups -- the Three Rivers Arts Festival had an emerging artist series called that, and Chatham has a Fourth River poetry anthology. There are various engineering and architecture firms called Fourth River, or have some kind of division with that name."
To Mr. Bernabo, the Fourth River represents advancement or creativity. So when Contraphonic asked for a photographer to illustrate his work, Mr. Bernabo came up with Carnegie Mellon's Elizabeth Raymer-Griffin.
"Elizabeth also thought it'd be great to make it into a class project. So I explained the piece to her students, and they took it however they wanted, interpreting what the Fourth River meant to them. You can see the photographs from that at the art opening."
According to Mr. Bernabo, there'll be download cards at the release show, but if you can't make it, "Fourth River" will be available directly from the contraphonic.com, bundled with Raymer-Griffin's photos and essays and writings by Schulman.
"The piece clashes two notions of what the Fourth River is -- one is more of a literal interpretation of the soil and rocks that it flows over -- a slightly superficial way of interpreting it -- but the other notion is a more romantic one of a flowing, underground river, majestically conveyed through more traditional figures bordering on classical guitar, and fleshed out with vibes, bass and other percussion. I put the basic structure of both [streams] next to each other and worked with overdubs to connect them."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.